By the second decade of the 19th century, the largest slave markets in the United States were in New Orleans, Louisiana. Simply based on the city’s geographical location, the slave markets received slaves by boat and sold them to planters in the Deep South. More than a million slaves were sold in the slave markets of New Orleans. Two-thirds of the more than one million slaves brought to the Deep South arrived via their migration from other parts of the country.
The slave trade was an integral part of the business life of New Orleans. The city was the largest port in the southern United States and handled huge quantities of commodities for export from the interior and imported goods from other countries These were warehoused and then transferred to smaller vessels and distributed the length and breadth of the vast Mississippi River watershed.
Slaves represented half a billion dollars in property, and an ancillary economy grew up around the trade in slaves—for transportation, housing and clothing, fees, etc., estimated at 13.5 percent of the price per person. All of this amounted to tens of billions of dollars (2005 dollars, adjusted for inflation) during the antebellum period, with New Orleans as a prime beneficiary.
One of the largest slave auction sites was at the City Exchange Hotel which opened in 1838 as the St. Louis Hotel. The main entrance to the hotel led into the exchange, a beautiful domed rotunda where every afternoon between noon and 3 p.m. the auctions were held. In this elegant hotel, the center of Creole society before the Civil War, was located perhaps the most infamous of the slave auction blocks.
In 1842, British writer James Buckingham reported walking through the rotunda. He described the scene at the auction site.
… One was selling pictures and dwelling on their merits; another was disposing of some slaves. These consisted of an unhappy family who were all exposed to the hammer at the same time. Their good qualities were enumerated in English and in French, and their persons were carefully examined by intending purchasers, among whom they were ultimately disposed of, chiefly to Creole buyers; the husband at 750 dollars, the wife at 550, and the children at 220 each.
I saw nothing especially repulsive in these places excepting the whole thing and I can not help feeling a sort of astonishment that such a thing and such scenes are possible in a community calling itself Christian. It seems to me sometimes as if it could not be reality; as if it were a dream.
The great slave-market is held in several houses situated in a particular part of the city (New Orleans). One is soon aware of their neighborhood from the groups of colored men and women, of all shades between black and light yellow, which stand or sit unemployed at the doors.
Unlike The Forks of the Road in Natchez, Mississippi, slaves were sold in a large number of locations throughout the city. In addition to the St. Louis Hotel, later renamed the City Exchange Hotel, there was the St. Charles Hotel and the exchange on Esplanade Avenue. Besides these major locations there were numerous other locations where slave auctions and sales were transacted.
Abraham Lincoln journeyed to New Orleans in 1831 with a cargo of merchandise. It was there that saw slavery up close for the first time in his life. Though born in a slave state, he had an earnest and growing repugnance to slavery. Still, up to this time he had never seen much of its workings. At this time he saw a slave market–the auctioning off of human beings. Turning to his companions he exclaimed with a solemn oath: “Boys, if ever I get a chance to hit that thing [slavery] I’ll hit it hard!”
Northern newspapers published a number of exposes of slave auctions, especially in the 1850s. The New York Tribune stories can be found here.